I’ve been frustrated by Apple’s Podcast app for a while now but am just now finding the time (or residual anger) to write this up. Part of the lag time is that, as in any dysfunctional relationship, I’d been blaming myself, assuming that I was missing something, that if I could just find the right setting or radio button, everything would magically work the way it’s supposed to. I have arrived at that moment when I realize sadly that it is not I but the app that is to be blamed. (And I’ve included at the bottom of this post the first five hits for ‘Podcasts app review’ in Google, many of which share my frustration.)

Ultimately it comes down to this: at best the app works very clunkily; at worst it doesn’t at all do what it’s supposed to do.

But first some background. I’m not a power Podcast listener. I’m consistent but limited in my use of Podcasts. I have a 35 – 45 minute commute (the former in the morning when there’s no traffic, the latter in the afternoon when there’s more). I listen to PTI (ESPN) on the way in to school and Fresh Air (NPR) on the way home. I sometimes supplement with 60 Minutes (CBS). I don’t ask much of my Podcasts / player; I expect it to be easy to get a new episode (not even expecting it to download itself, as it seems it should; dare to dream…) and to be easy to find unplayed episodes when they start to pile up (as Fresh Air sometimes does).

Here’s my experience of the Podcasts app, in order of most frustrating to least:

  1. Episodes appear downloaded (i.e. no down-facing arrow next to them to indicate downloadability) when at home in the comfort of my wireless network but, upon arrival in the car away from the network, the arrow mysteriously appears and, more important, the episode is not on my iPod (and not iPhone, so no downloading on the go, not that that would make it right).
  2. The concept of played and unplayed appears remarkably more fluid to my iPod than it does to me. When I download a number of episodes at a time (see below…) or when I plug into my computer (honestly I don’t know which, the idiosyncrasy of the app confounding in my mind any potential for data), it seems that this somehow resets all of those now frustrating blue dots. What was played is now miraculously unplayed.
  3. As much as it would be great to have Podcasts automatically download in the background (the technical limitations of which one of the reviews below covers), at this point we’re trying to crawl before we can walk. So I’ll find myself downloading a number of episodes of Fresh Air at a time. Apparently, I have to hover over my iPod, preventing it from going to sleep, lest those numerous downloads stop mid-stream. Again, it seems not too much to ask for the app to evince the basics of intuition (i.e. knowing that if I start a download I might want it to finish; I’m not asking for WOPR here).
  4. The settings seem to have little bearing on the behavior of the app itself (or at least a more flexible definition of what that connection should mean). I have it set to keep unplayed episodes. Which technically it does. But when those unplayed episodes appear amidst an entire list of undownloaded episodes, this becomes less than efficient, i.e. if I want an episode from December (that indeed is unplayed), I’m scrolling through two plus months worth of undownloaded episodes.

So that should do it for now. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for an app to do what it purports to do, especially when it’s a new app that is supposedly designed to minimze hassle by de-bloating iTunes / Music. But, as one of the reviews suggests, Apple here is presenting a solution to a problem that didn’t exist. Podcasts aren’t the issue and were integrated fine with iTunes (and I agree with one of the reviews that I miss Podcasts in playlists; I will sometimes use my commute to prep for class. I have a playlist for each of my units and those playlists might include iTunesU content, Podcasts, or .mp3s of lectures ripped from CDs, none of which can now go together).

Any time, Apple, you want to do a major overhaul of the Podcasts app, I, and more than a few of your other faithful customers, would welcome it.

Here are those other reviews: